Anchoring Roman Rule Through Cults and Festivals: an example from Kyme

Hi everyone! So far we have learned a lot about festivals forging links with and within Hellenistic kingdoms, and we have also seen how smaller festivals created cohesive regional identities and connected people with the landscape around them. Now we will jump forward in time a little bit to see which role cults and festivals played in cementing connections also with the Romans, from the moment Rome set foot on Greek soil onwards (ca. 200 BCE).

By now it is commonplace that under the Roman Empire, cults and festivals played an important role in legitimising imperial authority, the imperial cult being the most well-known example. Often overlooked however, are the Greek and Roman cult and festival interactions in the two-hundred years prior to the Empire, when Roman domination over the Eastern Mediterranean was still being contested. It was already during this period that Greek communities started to use the familiar language of cults and festivals to  explore and experiment with their relationship with Rome, which, at the same time, influenced Roman approaches to the Greek speaking world. The result was a dynamic process in which all sorts of new cults and festivals started to appear, to which a significant innovation was added: they were now, in one way or the other, focussed on Rome. Together these cults and festivals played an important role in the anchoring of Roman power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The anchoring of Roman authority through pre-existing cult and festival practices took various forms. One of the ways in which this took shape was through the introduction of a new goddess, Thea Romē, and cults in her honour (see map). As part of this cult complex there also appeared new festivals, the so-called Romaia festivals. In addition, individual Romans (pro-magistrates and other officials) were also being honoured with cults and festivals, and Rome and/or the Romans were honoured collectively (e.g. as Common Benefactors) or through personifications and abstractions (e.g. the Demos Romaion) too.

Cults in honour ofThea Romē

We could interpret these new cult and festival interactions as ‘anchoring processes’. In this process the coming of Rome and the new cults and festivals linked to Roman authority can be seen as the ‘innovation’, and the pre-existing cults and festivals – to which the new Rome-oriented cults and festivals were often linked – as the ‘anchors’, meaning the traditional practices through which Greek communities and Roman agents found a shared field of experience to create common knowledge and to connect the new political developments to familiar frameworks.

A good example of how such anchoring processes worked can be found in Kyme, a city on the Western shore of Asia Minor. Already from classical times onwards this was a prosperous city, benefitting from its coastline location. Kyme’s prosperity continued after the Alexandrian conquest of Asia Minor, and the city’s well-being seems to have been hardly affected by the series of conflicts fought between Alexander’s successors. As a result of these conflicts however, political influence spheres followed each other quickly. First the city was part of the Seleukid Empire. But after the death of Antiochus III in the Battle of Magnesia, an event that had put an end to the Seleukid presence in Western Asia Minor, there followed a brief period of Attalid rule. Not much later Kyme decided to declare itself ally of Rome, and eventually became incorporated in the Roman province of Asia (Plb. 22.27, Liv. 38.39).

That festivals were an important medium for anchoring political change is shown by a rich epigraphic dossier that was found in Kyme, consisting of three documents: a decree containing a letter of Philetairos, the founder of the Attalid dynasty and successor to the Seleukid rulers (SEG 50.1195) dating to 280-278 or circa 270 BCE, a honorary decree for the Attalid official Epigonos dating to around 200 BCE (SEG 29.1216), and a honorary decree for the benefactress Archippe, dating to the 2nd half of the 2nd century BCE (SEG 33.1039), when Rome arrived on the scene. What these inscriptions show first is that festival titles changed in response to shifting political alliances. First of all,  the city’s Dionysia changed from a pre-existing civic festival to the Dionysia and Antiocheia and then, in response to the transitions of rule, to the Dionysia and Attaleia, to be changed back again to the civic Dionysia without any appendage a few decades later. That Kymean festivals reflect political alliances is also shown by the Soteria festival, that changed from the Soteria and the Philetaireia to the Soteria and the Romaia, in the period that Roman power in the region firmly began to manifest itself.[1]

However, the set of Kymean inscriptions not only show that political change is reflected through festival titles. They also provide insight into how festivals and other cultic acts played an active role in the process of anchoring new powers. First of all, it are the inscriptions themselves, set up in highly visible and public places, that were an important tool in communicating shifting political alliances. Secondly, their contents  emphasise the festivals, theatres, and processions as the mass-advertising media par excellence through which to publicly announce the messages of changing political power. Not always however, this needed to be the main subject. Often messages of political power were embedded in wider messages about civic benefactions and civic values. Hereby one made use of a shared field of experience i.e. the festival practices and related beneficiary acts that were already known, to embed the messages of these new political alliances in familiar frameworks.

This naturally raises questions about the specific nature of the anchoring of Roman power through cults and festivals, in the various forms as sketched above. In the next posts we will therefore take a look at other manifestations of early anchoring through which Roman authority gradually became embedded in pre-existing practices.


Further reading:

Ando, Clifford. 2000. Imperial ideology and provincial loyalty in the Roman Empire. Classics and contemporary thought ; 6. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Buraselis, Kostas. 2012. “Appended Festivals: The Coordination and Combination of Traditional Civic and Ruler Cult Festivals in the Hellenistic and Roman East.” Greek and Roman Festivals, Oxford: 247-265.

Mellor, Ronald. 1975. Thea Rōmē : the worship of the goddess Roma in the Greek world. Hypomnemata; 42. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

Price, Simon. R.F. 1984. Rituals and power : the Roman imperial cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

Sluiter, Ineke. 2017. “Anchoring Innovation: A Classical Research Agenda.” European Review 25, no. 1: 20–38.

[1] Buraselis (2012).